Thursday, February 26, 2009

Whose House? Cinq

This one's easy. Gloomy old pile.

(Update: Not as easy as I thought, apparently. Here's a picture of the object of our architectural affection's birthplace:)

(UpUpdate: Not so easy after all, I guess. Should be. Here's what it looked like after remodeling:)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Whose House Four

(Update) Well. I've finally found one that took more than a day to figure out. Commenter Eric, who is very observant, wonders who would have a picture of Oliver Cromwell on the wall. A fine clue, that. I'll tell you no one Irish would have that picture. I bet it was the father of the object of our architectural affections, who built the house. The fellow we're looking for eventually moved right down the street, and lived for a good long time at that address, too:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Upping The Ante On Whose House Is This Number 3

Even the educated guesses on the last two were pretty good. This one ain't easy.

(Update: George Grady got it in the comments. One Free Internets for George!)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The 3-6-3 Rule Rules. Well, It Used To

Why did the nascent United States produce so many great thinkers? Where are they now?

Great thinkers come to the fore when they are required. The founding of any great enterprise requires inspiration coupled to intellect. If the intellect is wanting, the inspiration is enough, but makes it harder to carry out the fruits of your inspiration except by dogged determination. Intellect alone is not useless -- it's worse than useless. On a good day it's counterproductive; the other 364 days it's destructive. You cannot come up with a worthwhile concept based solely on intellect. It qualifies you only to be a clerk or a sophist. Clerking is hard work, so everybody goes full sophist right away.

And now the world is run by sophists. They think that because they read a few books about people who were great that they are great in turn. There are two problems with this surmise. One, the people they think were great, weren't. And they are incapable of much more than misremembering and misunderstanding the twaddle they read anyway because education isn't very rigorous anymore. If you think the world's business is decided by simply choosing wisely between John Galt and Noam Chomsky, I don't know what to say to you. Mozart is never going to show up on American Idol.

I'll answer the question I posed in the opening myself. The reason Hamilton and Madison et. al. sat at the same table once is that it was required just then. There was an enormous market for ideas in the rough, right away. A few years later, the time for thinking like that was over. Old Muttonhead rightly sat at the head of the table and told Jefferson and Hamilton to put a sock in it, and see if they could manage to keep the spittoons emptied in their assigned offices before they got any more bright ideas. We could use some Old Muttonhead right now.

I read the news in the most desultory fashion because it's so useless to read twaddle filtered through incoherence and basted with a faction reduction. I hear, literally, gibberish. There is no such thing as a "toxic asset." An asset is pass/fail. It either is, or it's not. A banker prone to adjectives isn't one. There's that sophistry again. To hear a person with their hand on the levers of vital things utter such bosh indicates to me that the people that formerly put stupid back-seat-driver bright ideas in the suggestion box at their crummy jobs thrice daily are in charge of important things now.

Smart managers know the suggestion box is 99.9% for humoring cranks. The Internet is the world's suggestion box now, with the same role.

What possible good could it do to read the paper and see a capital injection into the money supply and a transfer payment to non-productive sectors referred to interchangeably as "a bailout." It used to be only the journalist that was that ignorant. When the people the journalists are interviewing start talking like that, why listen at all?

My father was a banker. He told me the old saw about the only rule in the bank is the "3-6-3 Rule." Borrow at 3%, lend at 6%, and play golf at three.

It was a joke and pop never played golf and he never left at three and people were always coming in to the bank to rob it and shoot the guard. You see, you don't understand the joke. You think it means that bankers were effete and lazy and thick-headed. It really meant that the wisest of them knew that after you borrowed (judiciously) at 3% and lent (wisely) at 6% there was nothing left to do. If you kept coming up with bright ideas after that, it was all bad, brother.

Everybody's been working overtime in banking and government coming up with new and bright ideas to torture the language and the arithmetic so they could pat themselves on the back about how much smarter they are than everybody else. Can I have my bonus billion now? I'm going to invest it with Bernie Madoff because I'm so smahhht.

You're not captains of industry. You're not visionaries. You're not statesmen. You're supposed to be clerks. I'm sorry, but clerks don't get paid all that much -- and never get a piece of the action. They don't get statues in the park in their honor. I can read well enough to know that real clerks, honorable, hardworking clerks, are going to be taxed into the hereafter, never mind the foreseeable future, to make sure the fake clerks with delusions of grandeur don't have to go back to the real world they fled.

It's an honorable profession, being a clerk. I spend part of my day being one. You intellectual swells should try dabbling in it. To paraphrase the apartment dwelling version of Randle Patrick McMurphy : Sell big ideas someplace else; we're all stocked up here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What's (Still) Opera, Doc?

The joke in Seinfeld that everything you know about opera you learned from Looney Toons is both funny and accurate for a lot of us. But what's wrong with having your interest in something profound being piqued by something frivolous or mundane? A map doesn't come full size, because it sure would be hard to fold. And I've noticed that all of Rhode Island isn't really flat and light blue. We accept approximations all the time to give us the general idea.

I like me some opera. I like it as much straight up as when Elmer Fudd does it. And You Tube is good for opera.

YouTube strikes me as a sort of abandoned library. There's all sorts of great stuff in among the debris, but I fear the whole thing will get torn down for condos soon. I pick around in the dusty piles while it lasts.

I found Caruso.

Someone's restored it fairly well. You can hear the compression that comes with being recorded on machinery that greatly restricts the tonal range. But even though it doesn't have all the oomph that you would have heard in the original, you can discern it in there, like a beautiful woman draped in satin.

Opera was for everybody then. Caruso was Sinatra and Elvis and the Beatles first. I think of my own grandfather, Caruso's fellow Neapolitan, hearing these familiar notes in his Cambridge Massachusetts walk-up flat. Life is in those notes. It must have seemed like seeing Jackie Robinson rounding second base to an African-American for my grandparents to hear Caruso sing in the United States. Like a hero; a champion; a god. San Francisco shook itself to the ground with its earthquake, then burned. The paper only wondered: Is Caruso OK?

It is considered trite, a little, that aria from La Boheme; but that's just a measure of its universality and accessibility. Why, Bugs Bunny might even sing that one.

The sentiment is lovely. Que Gelida Manina -How cold your little hand is.

Rodolfo meets Mimi for the first time, and falls in love.

How cold your little hand is!
Will you let me warm it for you?
Why bother looking?
It's dark, and we won't find it.
It's our good luck though,
this night's filled with moonlight,
up here the moonlight could rest on our shoulders.
Please wait, my dear young lady,
and I will quickly tell you who stands before you, and
what I do, how I make my living.
May I?

Who am I? What am I? I am a poet.
What keeps me busy? Writing!
And what do I live on? Nothing!
In poverty I'm cheerful,
I am a prince who squanders
arias and couplets of longing.
And as for hopes and dreams of love
and castles-in-the-air, Miss-
I am a millionaire!
My fortress could be broken in,
robbed clean of the fine jewels I store-
if the thieves were eyes like yours.
And now that I have seen you,
all of my lovely dreaming,
all of the sweetest dreams I've dreamt,
quickly have slipped away.
This theft does not upset me,
because such treasures mean nothing
now that I'm rich with sweet hope!
And now that you have met me,
I ask you please,
Tell me, lady, who you are, I ask you please!

YouTube tempted me with another version: Giuseppe DiStefano.

It's newer,as Giuseppe is my father's, not my greatgrandfather's, contemporary. But the recording is at least as old as I am. I think it might be the best version of it I ever heard.

And I've heard Caruso.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Short History Of The Auto Industry

It's always consisted of a powerful engine nailed onto the front of a funeral parlor.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I Wonder If I'd Still Go If It Was Still Like The Picture

A long time ago, skiing was for rich people.

A certain kind of rich people. The only person I knew of that did it in the town I grew up in was the town's dentist. He drove a Citroen. My dad drove a Ford Falcon on its third owner with 175,000 miles on it.

When I was maybe nineteen, I ate my first fresh strawberry. I understood then there was another world I wasn't living in.

I hated the winter --still do-- because I was always cold. No one poor likes the winter. Rich people knew all about Leon Leonwood Bean and went skiing. We would have looked at it like it was a catalog of spacesuits, if we'd ever seen one, which we hadn't.

I decide to embrace my hate of the winter. I would learn to ski. A friend gave me a manual written to instruct ski instructors on how to teach others to ski. Everything was always twice removed in my life, and maybe always will be. When the world gives you lemons...

Never mind that. When the world gives you lemons you don't make any gaddamn Erma Bombeck lemonade; you howl gigantic curses into the ether and then you shrug and get on with it, or not. But you throw the lemons in the trash first. You know it's true.

So I learned the bizarre book I'd been given. I did this exercise in my crummy apartment where I slept on piece of foam atop a door taken down from its hinges propped up on four milkcrates: You put your heels on a threshold to get the forward lean right, then did deep-knee bends and held them when you were halfway upright.

I swapped some other junk for some skiing junk. The skis were old Rozzies that had been run over so many times by people taking ski lessons from their owner that the metal edge that bound the fiberglass board was worn all the way through. The entire upper perimeter was as raggedy as a shawl and as sharp as a razor. I cranked down the venerable bindings all the way, because you had to choose between never on and always on and I couldn't see the wisdom in never on.

Like most things for people without the money or leisure to follow through with their plans, I had no prayer of performing on perfect pistes among the dentists, but it was the idea I was after. I must conquer winter.

I knew I'd never be able to blow the money it took to go skiing on skiing. So like always, you go around. In the back of the loopy textbook, there was an offhand comment that if you showed up at a ski area and were a ski instructor, they'd let you ski there for nothing if you'd help them with Ski Patrol nanny patrol. Telling people to slow down, and generally ruining everything for everybody.

So if you learn to ski by reading a teaching manual, why not just take the test when you're done? Hall monitor, here I come.

So more or less the first time I went skiing I was teaching it for money at a ski slope with a massive 225 foot vertical. I'd cut the little kids' clothes to ribbons with my kitana skis, and carry the lazy ones on my shoulder to slide the patch of the bunny slope that was my domain.

I took the money and bought German downhill skis and flashed my little pin at the real ski areas and they let me ski for nothing half the time with the promise I'd watch for reckless skiers. I'd smile and nod and even occasionally wear the little vest they'd give you until I got to the lift. Then I went sixty miles-an-hour down their slope and sent all the dentists' kids into the snowbanks trying to get out of my way. I am not a liar or a cheat. I was always on the lookout for reckless skiers, but it was not my fault they were always behind me and couldn't catch up.

When the gradeschool nuns were rapping our knuckles and telling us we were as good as anyone, I knew they really meant shut up and behave yourself and know the dignity of never raising your eyes to the horizon. They told me I'd be struck dead if I turned around in church, too.

I turned around. I wanted to see what it was like to be struck dead.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nothing New Under The Sun

If you have a library card, you can't help but be a little amused at many of the highly educated people staggering around the halls of governance, education, and media these days. They claim they can and should minutely supervise the activities of all of us, but they can't even figure out if the Second Bank of the United States should have been abolished or not; never mind what to do about something in this century.

The people who say they are qualified to micromanage the affairs of the world and everybody and everything in it can't do arithmetic well enough to be a successful bank teller, and can't figure out whether to put an apostrophe in it is.

I've broken ground on many substantial construction projects. We used to paint a shovel to look like it was made of gold, and the bankers and politicians would turn a shovel load of dirt and have their picture taken. Then we'd mount the shovel on a board with an inscription and present it as a keepsake. We used to fashion a box and fill it with sand for the participants, as it was unlikely anyone involved would be capable of turning even one spadeful of real soil from the site.

It's the greatest metaphor possible for today's Zeitgeist. People completely unaware of how anything actually gets done or paid for using an instrument fraudulently tarted up to look valuable to perform a meaningless operation in order to be given credit by the media for everything.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Un Regalo

People are given gifts. They squander them, mostly. The recipients think they are immortal, and other gifts will simply climb through the window and sit in your lap-- after they knock, no one answers, and they jiggle the doorknob.

There were many people justly famous for singing in the seventies. I can't bear to hear them now. Some immediately became clowns. But even the others, that fought father time more wisely, mostly try to spackle their performances together from the remaining wreckage of their gifts, and it makes me sad to hear it. At least Van Morrison knew he couldn't sing much in the first place and gave some thought to singing as an old man. But the world already has one John Lee Hooker. The rest of them just got loaded and yelled until they were left croaking elevator music for a living, or spilling out of their spandex in a theater next to a casino.

Everyone gets gifts, just not all so obvious and noteworthy. What are you doing with your gifts? They go stale after a while, whether you use them or not. Use them, now, and wisely. Regret is a terrible thing.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Rich Men (Still) Have Real Estate

Momma was quiet. Daddy was silent.

I'd come home from school, and momma would hug me like she did. I could feel her snuffle on the top of my head. It was like she needed the smell of me, too. I'd sit in the chair in the kitchen, and talk and talk about the day, and she'd murmur along with me. It wasn't words, really, just a little string of sounds to let me know she still heard her little yo-yo spinning, and I hadn't reached the end of my string yet.

I can't picture her face anymore in my mind's eye; I have to fish through the box of pictures to find one of her. I touch it when I look at it. I don't know why I run my hand over it but I do. I hear her murmuring all the days of my life.

Dad never spoke, or so it seemed. You could have hung a sign around his neck that read: "I don't know" and saved yourself a world of trouble. He said it all the time, when he said anything. I think it's funny that he always knew, but said that anyway. Daddy knew everything. Momma said knowing is in daddy's head, but it's in my mouth. He was alone all day in that field, and got used to it. Or it got used to him.

I'd watch him wash the day's dust from his hands and face and the back of his neck while momma placed the dishes just so on the table. He seemed to linger over it a minute in an odd way. Daddy always seemed to move slow, but I noticed no one could ever keep up with him. I never could. I never will. I asked him why he liked to wash his face like that. He said: "Oh, I don't know." When daddy put an "oh" along with his "I don't know" it meant something different. It meant he didn't know exactly, I think.

We sat for a long minute at the table. I remember how the sun would slant in that window, the same angle every day plus a little or minus a little, and you could tell the time and the season by it. The afternoon would settle the air but the curtain would always sway like a dancer with it.

We worked at the food. Dad seemed all wrist at the table. His clothes never made it as far as he did. The teacher had told me about the lever you could use to lift the whole earth, and they all laughed at me when I said I'd seen it coming out of my daddy's sleeve. They all have fathers that don't say "I don't know" and their wrist fits in their sleeve and only lifts the newspaper.

Five minutes had gone by, easy, by the clock, and I could tell daddy was still turning over my foolishness in his mind. Why does a man wash any certain way? A man washes as much as his momma makes him, and no more.

The oven cooled and ticked, the clock tocked, the glasses tinked, and the curtains swayed. Daddy said: " A rich man like me has a lot of real estate, and carries it around with him. I like to take it off and look at it from time to time."

(Editor's Note: First offered in 2007)
[Author's Note: There is no editor]

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Monday, February 02, 2009

Sippican's Thermopylae Of Thermocouples, Part The Third

[Editor's note: We continue the seemingly neverending saga of Sippican welding in the desert. It was uphill both ways in the snow, in the desert, apparently.]

{Author's note: The fancy writing dudes always pooh pooh physically demanding things. Mental toughness is a form of intelligence, if you ask me. There is no editor.}

I've read that it's smells that humans remember the longest, or are the most likely to jog memories. After positing that, the pseudoscientists often talk about Grandma's cookies. Let me tell you about smells.

It smells like exotic bread is baking near the dust collector when you put pine through the drum sander. You know the fine dust is giving you nose cancer and lung trouble so you're almost immune to its charms. Almost. There was this smell once, when I had to renovate an apartment a guy died in. He was in there a good long time, too. It's the smell of the mass grave. That was fun. But nothing can compare to the smell of the abrasive cutoff saw going through steel. It makes brimstone smell like French pastry.

You see, to cut metal like that you don't often use a saw with teeth. It's just an abrasive disc, and you send a shower of sparks and an acrid, burning blast of stink up your nose. It's like snorting sand from the outdoor ashtray next to the door at the place they hold Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I'll never forget it.

Work started about a half hour before you were scheduled to go to bed, so there was a dreary weariness writ on everyone's face. There was a huddle with everyone looking off into the middle distance, while Larry, the Hawaiian guy with the Long Island housewife afro told us what to do. All the work was tracked on little yellow index cards in pencil. There wasn't a lot to know; outside diameter of the stainless steel tube, length of the finished probe, and what kind of metals were used for the electrodes inside the tube. We made all kinds, but it was mostly J and K types, which are common things made from common metals. By common people, Larry's aureole of hair notwithstanding.

The raw stock to make the thermocouples was coiled to make it easy to store, and simply labeled with a tag tied to the coil with a letter on it. You'd find the coil, which weighed a bit when it was new but was infinitely more appealing than handling the light remainders of the coils. The guys that had worked there awhile never touched the bits and pieces and broke open new coils all the time. Sooner or later someone had to face the short, stainless steel straw, though.

You had to straighten out the coiled pieces by shoving them through a machine called a desuager. A desuager is just a revolving bend. You feed the SS tube through a yoke with three holes. Input output, and the middle. The middle hole is offset from center. The yoke was spun by a motor, and you have to hold on for dear life to the coil as the revolving bend tries to spin it -- and you--all around. It's easy to hold onto the big coils of small diameter tubing, but the scraps of large diameter stuff were almost impossible to hold. You'd clamp the world's oldest Vise-Grip to those and hold on for dear life. More about that later.

So you'd straighten the coil out, and use the abrasive saw to chop them to length. 20 ea K 1/4" 24" is all the work order would say on it. You didn't measure, there were rude markings in pencil on the work bench from the first person who worked there, and you'd use them. Then you got the smell.

It was starting to get hot now. The metal roof sorta glowed with it when the sun started rising up in the sky. So we did what any intelligent person would do. We climbed a ladder to get closer to it.

You see, the shop was set up to handle the largest thing we might sell, not the usual two foot trifle, so you climbed a sort of gangway ladder to a tower where you'd weld. You were working on the tip of the thermocouple, and it had to be oriented vertically. To this day, I can't understand how I climbed up there carrying all the welding stuff and the thermocouples.

The Road Warrior came out shortly after I worked at this place, and I thought they filmed it on location there. It was a barbarous set of circumstances. You'd sit in the kind of chair you'd find at a flea market held outside a torture dungeon, the hot metal roof right over your head. In front of you was a Fred Flintsone looking vise arrangement with brass jaws with a series of holes drilled in it. You'd clamp the thermocouple stock in the appropriate circle, and get to work.

You had to sandblast the insulation out of the tip of the stock to expose the two electrodes inside. And now you had to weld them together. To work, a thermocouple joins two dissimilar metals at one end, sticks that end in the nasty spot full of incredible hotness, and you measure the tiny voltage at the other end with a meter to tell the temperature. The operative term here is: dissimilar.

It's hard as hell to weld identical metals together properly. Welding dissimilar metals is impossible. You do it, but I stand behind the word: it's impossible.

It becomes possible because if you falter once, you will be immediately fired and the other 135 guys that got passed over get their shot. It's possible because if you tarry on the only tower, the other ten guys waiting to do their work while you fumble around will meet you outside after work, and they don't knit for a hobby. You'll lose the only job you can find twenty-five states away from the place of your birth and you won't even have enough money to drive home to be poor there in the snowbanks.

So it's not even possible. It's downright easy.

(to be continued)